Let Me Tell You Something

In this post, I asked if I made a mistake in telling instead of showing.  A commenter asked me to share specific examples.  Here are four places in my writing where I have made that choice:

The first instance involves summarizing.  “A story is life with the boring parts removed.”  In Power of the Mages Chapter 2, I have an interlude where Xan distracts his adoptive father.  The anecdotes from Master Diwen are not meant to be exciting, and there was no plot reason to relate them to the reader.  However, I didn’t feel that I could just skip the portion in question without making the scene choppy.  I summarized.

Xan cut her off with a sharp look.  “How are things at the bank?”

As he hoped, the question elicited fifteen minutes of anecdotes about his guardian’s business.  Xan strove to appear interested and not let his eyes close.  No one mentioned anything more about sleep or his health before Master Diwen left.

As soon as the door closed behind her dad, Lainey released her tongue.  “You can’t keep dismissing this problem.  You act like you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a month.  You can’t keep your eyes open.”  She put her hands on her hips.  “You need help.”

The second instance involves motivation and emotion.  I want the reader to clearly understand why the POV character is behaving the way he is.  In Abuse of Power, I could have written a scene just for the purpose, but I chose telling in order to keep the writing tightly focused on the plot.

He chose a specific spot for each step.  Despite his bulk, the resulting crunch of leaves and sticks blended into sounds of gurgling water and a gentle breeze stirring the canopy of treetops.  The cool night air and the excitement of the chase made him feel alive.

How dare she ask me to give up this.  The thought made him want to tear a limb from a nearby tree and crush it into splinters.  If she knew how I felt, maybe she wouldn’t have asked, and we’d still be together.  A quiet voice in the back of his mind reminded him of how many times he had told her just that.  Fighting not to scream in frustration, he picked a patch of ground covered in moss and stepped on it.

The third instance involves transitioning between scenes.  When time passes with nothing important happening inside a chapter, I could end a scene, put three asterisks, and start a new scene with contextual clues as to the new time and location.  In Power of the Mages, I decided to only use that technique when I’m changing POV characters.  Instead, I use a short, telling paragraph to indicate what is happens.  Here’s one I wrote in Chapter 3.

After an hour of nothing happening, fatigue overwhelmed him.  He resisted closing his eyes but found it impossible.  Soon, he fell asleep.  The guards roused him briefly for lunch and again for dinner.  Otherwise, Xan spent the entire day in slumber. 

The fourth instance involves backstory.  There’s always a concern with losing the reader by incorporating too much history.  I think, however, that some is required for epic fantasy.  In Chapter 5 of Power of the Mages, I included a few paragraphs that I felt the reader needed to know.

As he studied his friends’ faces, Xan reflected on the laws against magic.  A half century ago, a powerful magic user called the Lion rebelled against the three kingdoms, seeking to take power himself.  Many of the mages, tired of bowing to oppressive restrictions set by the mundane government, sided with him.  Another great magic user, the Eagle, came out of retirement to lead the opposing force.  The resulting battles, the Wizard’s War, called the War of Lion and Eagle by some, raged for more than ten years.

The conflict decimated the ranks of mages.  Sandhold’s king persuaded the leaders of Waveshire and Spiredom to act.  Their combined forces wiped out the remaining magic users, save for some few who agreed to no longer use their abilities and not to train new recruits.  Prohibitions proscribing execution to any born with magical ability became law following the Eagle’s death a few years later.

With the regulation in force for so long, the population gave it no thought.  They considered it evil, much like murder or rape, without questioning its fundamental morality.  It amazed Xan that people revered the Eagle while reviling people who, like the town’s namesake, used magic.

I’d love to hear your opinions.  Was I justified in Telling instead of Showing in these four places?


2 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You Something

  1. To throw in my opinion:

    The first example seems acceptable to me, but I find the line “No one mentioned anything more about sleep or his health before Master Diwen left.” confusing, perhaps because it is out of context. Is it necessary?

    I believe the second isn’t exactly telling as long as the technique of including internal dialogue in narrative is continued throughout the story.

    For the third, sometimes we have to tell in order to compress. However, I would expand the sentence “Otherwise, Xan spent the entire day in slumber.” We don’t need _otherwise_, and more detail is necessary. Just a little something like, ‘he drifted back to sleep and wasn’t bothered again.’ or maybe in a few sentences, telling of various small details of his sleep and communicating that the day passed.

    In the fourth, I would lean toward incorporating these details throughout your story, instead of giving them to me in one history-book block. Not only is it a little difficult to absorb, but if you, for instance, were to hint to these details in dialogue throughout the book, I would have the added entertainment of putting them together. Sometimes an author must hold back what they know about their own world and allow the hidden knowledge to function as scaffolding. It’s a matter of giving your readers’ deductive capabilities credit.

    Hope that helps!

    • For the first example, I think that the line you referred to makes contextual sense and is necessary. Had I included more of the passage, I think you would have agreed.

      For the second example, there are telling statements mixed in with the showing/internal dialogue. Glad to hear that they didn’t bother you.

      For the third example, I’m not sure why I should expand it. If the details of his sleep doesn’t impact plot or develop character, why include it?

      For the fourth example, I get your point. To the greatest extent possible, I incorporate details as I go along. However, I don’t feel like a 2 paragraph infodump in the fifth chapter will pull a reader from the story. Hopefully, by that point, they’re invested enough in the world to find the information interesting, and the backstory directly relates to the dramatic tension being built in the scene. Still, it was a tough decision to make. When I go back over the scene for the 3rd draft, I’ll consider revisions.

      Thanks for the comments. I’m a big Show, Don’t Tell guy, but sometimes you just have to tell. Making sure that you’re doing it for a reason and that it works is important.


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